The Alabama Crimson Tide went on the road to Starkville Saturday night and continued their mastery over the Mississippi State Bulldogs. The Tide defeated the Dogs 82-74 to improve to 11-5 overall and 3-0 in the SEC. MSU fell to 12-4 overall and 2-1 in conference play.
Mississippi State has one of the best big men in the conference in the presence of Tolu Smith, and are also is one of the two most physical teams in the league. This is precisely the type of teams that have given Nate Oats teams fits, and particularly this year’s version of the Crimson Tide.
‘Bama did their best to match the Dogs’ physicality, and improbably held their own. Mark Sears, Latrell Wrightsell, Jr, and Rylan Griffen did the bulk of the scoring, but Grant Nelson, in particular, did a much better job of playing tougher — something Coach Oats had alluded to following ‘Bama’s dominating win over South Carolina.
The win is a good one for the Tide’s postseason hopes — the Bulldogs are ranked 28th in the NET, and this a solid Q1 resume-padder against the sort of squad that has flummoxed ‘Bama all season.
With Mohamed Wague still nursing a foot injury, Nick Pringle replaced him in the starting lineup again tonight, joining Sears, Griffen, Nelson, and Aaron Estrada. Wague was able to play some, and logged 10 minutes.
However, problems almost immediately arose, as foul-happy Nick Pringle truly put on his magnum opus: playing just six minutes before fouling out. The lankier Grant Nelson was pressed into carrying a bigger load at the center spot against the Bulldogs who attacked him all night.
Bama started out slowly, and fell behind 8-2 in the first two minutes. The Bulldogs increased their lead to 15-6 at the 14:18 mark before the Tide got on a roll. Griffen hit two of two at the free throw line to finally draw the Tide even at 15 with 11:26 remaining in the half. Wrightsell hit a pair from behind the arc for Bama’s first lead of the game, 23-21, with 8:09 left.
For the first time this season Sears got in a little foul trouble, drawing two early calls. Griffen scored twice on nice drives to the basket to keep a small lead for Bama. Coach Nate Oats rolled the dice and put Sears back in with about five minutes left, who fortunately did not pick up a third. Then Nelson banked in a three-pointer; and, cold as he has been, we will gladly take it without even calling “glass.”
When the halftime buzzer sounded, Alabama had a slim 40-38 lead.
In the first half, the Tide shot 12-28 for 43%, including 5-14 for 36% from deep, and 11-15 for 73% from the line. Bama had 21 rebounds, an uncharacteristically low four assists, one block, two steals, and a miserable eight turnovers. Wrightsell had 11 and Griffen had 10 to lead the Tide scorers.
MSU outshot the Tide in the first half with a nifty 15-28 for 54%, with 4-6 from deep, but made only 4-10 from the charity stripe. Today, we pointed out that ‘State is the worst free throw shooting team in the league, and their troubles tonight at the stripe helped cost them the game. The ‘Dogs had 18 rebounds, seven assists, three blocks, and six turnovers. Smith and DJ Jeffries led the home team with seven points each.
Coach Oats sent out the same starters for the second half. And, like the first frame, the Bulldogs came roaring out of the locker room, scoring the first five points of the half and taking 43-40 lead — before the Tide went on a run of their own.
Griffen hit a three to claim a 45-43 ‘Bama lead, and Estrada followed up with a pair of free throws. When Nelson made a steal and dished a nifty assist, Bama lead by six. Sears scored eight straight points for the Tide to stretch the lead out to 59-49 with 12:40 left in the game.
Alabama kept the lead at 10 for a few minutes before the Dogs staged a comeback. To aid in the comeback, Bama missed several bunnies right at the basket. With 7:25 left the Tide held onto a five-point lead before going ice cold. Bama fans have seen this script before, and as Yogi Berra once said, it looked like “deja vu all over again.”
With 4:40 on the clock MSU took the lead back at 70-69. However Griffen and Sears refused to let Bama lose.
The game was tied 74-74 with 2:39 left before Sears drove and scored at the rim. The Tide benefited from some free throw luck, as State missed six straight over the last three minutes. Those critical bricks helped the Tide hold off the Bulldogs. Sears, meanwhile, made four frees in a row, and Wrighsell finished things off with two of his own to give Alabama the 82-74 win.
The Tide shot 13-30 in the second half with 5-14 from three point range again, and hit a very important 11-11 at the free throw line after the break. Overall, Bama shot 25-58 for 43%, 10-29 for 36 from deep, and 22-26 from the line for 85%. The Tide finished with 36 rebounds, nine assists, five blocks, seven steals, and 13 turnovers.
Sears again put the team on his back down the stretch and led the game with 22 points on 6-12 shooting and 8-8 made free throws. Wrightsell, Jr, continued his stellar play off the bench and hit 5-9 three pointers for 19 points. Griffen shot 6-12 and scored 17 points with six rebounds, and two assists.
Nelson has been struggling offensively, but he was invaluable tonight. The lanky transfer scored nine points, grabbed nine big rebounds, had three steals, was credited with three blocks — I feel he had more — and altered several other attempts. You can't say enough about his toughness going against a couple of players that outweight him by 50-60 pounds. Estrada added nine points and contributed five rebounds.
MSU shot 11-33 for 33% in the half, with only 3-11 from behind the arc. The Bulldogs made only 11-17 from the free throw line in the half. Overall, the Bulldogs shot 26-61 for 43%, 7-17 for 41% from three, and shot themselves in the foot by making only 15-27 free throws. State did end up winning the battle of the boards by one, 37-36, had 12 assists, seven blocks, seven steals, and committed 12 turnovers.
Smith had a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebonds, but shot only 5-15 from the field and 5-10 at the line. Freshman Josh Hubbard added 14, Shakeel Moore notched 13 and Cameron Matthews added 12 points.
What a tough, gritty win by the Tide.
With Wague’s injury and Pringle’s foul trouble, the team was without their two big guys for much of the game. The two combined to play only 16 minutes, and together scored a measly
two points and grabbed one pitiful rebound. Sears, Griffen, Nelson, and Estrada all played between 30-35 minutes, and Wrightsell, Jr saw 27 minutes of action off the bench. Sam Walters and Wague were the only other players in double digit minutes with 10 each. Jarin Stevenson and Mouhamed Dioubate both logged eight minutes.
Sears is playing like the best player in the conference, and possibly in the whole country. Game after game the senior from Muscle Shoals has put the team on his back. Griffen has stepped his contributions up over the last several games, and Wrightsell, Jr brings back memories of old school NBA player Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson, formally of the Detroit Pistons.
Oats used Dioubate again to give the team a jolt of energy, as his role has increased significantly over the last three games. The Tide did play better defense tonight, but the Dogs will never be confused with an offensive juggernaut. Also counting on teams to shoot terribly at the free throw line isn't a strategy to hang your hat on.
Still, Alabama fans — and the Bama players — have to be happy with closing this one out. In so many of ‘Bama’s losses this year, the Tide have not been able to weather late cold stretches. They force the play, have bad turnovers, get lost defensively and outhustled in the post. That did not happen tonight, when it very easily could in a sold-out hostile arena against a quality opponent that plays a type of ball that has been ‘Bama’s kryptonite. There were mistakes to be sure, and plenty to clean up, but there were a lot of positives to build on as well — especially the emergence of a tougher Grant Nelson.
Next up is a home game on Tuesday night against the struggling Missouri Tigers. The Tide needs to take care of business and get to 4-0 before traveling to Tennessee on Saturday the 20th, followed by a home game against the Auburn Tigers on Wednesday, January 24th.
The Mizzou game is at 6 p.m and will be shown on the SEC Network.
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